Seniors leave it all on court in their final game

By Jeff LaBelle

INDIANAPOLIS – Disappointment seeped from the faces of Illinois men’s basketball players following the team’s 61-48 loss to No. 1-seeded Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament title game.

Nobody broke down around the media but it was clear the improbable run to the tournament finals, the likes of which haven’t been seen since 1999, and a chance to make the NCAA field of 65 was over.

“We tried to make that push and get that little kick uphill, but it just wasn’t enough,” senior Brian Randle said.

Senior reserve guard Chris Hicks, playing in what was probably his last game as an Illini, sat back in his chair overwhelmed with feelings of loss – losing the game, leaving his teammates and losing the Illinois jersey. He scored three points and had a steal with 45.8 seconds remaining at the end of regulation, reminiscent of many games he’s entered this season.

This one, though, didn’t send a smile shooting across his face.

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“I wasn’t ready for this to end,” he said. “I wasn’t ready.

“I’m going to miss doing this,” he added. “It’s going to be tough leaving these guys. I’ll probably come back here sometimes, but I got to move on.”

Randle wanted his team to feel success, he said, and the tournament run was the closest thing to that this season. The moment, as he thought about having to leave, forced him to repress his feelings.

“I got a lot of tears inside of me right now that I’m holding back,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds – I still got to work out and take my shot, but there’s nothing like putting on an Illinois uniform and playing in Assembly Hall. What can I say? It’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Illinois beat Penn State on Thursday, Purdue on Friday and Minnesota on Saturday, and if the team had won on Sunday they would have earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, after also failing to be named to the NIT Tournament field of 32 teams late Sunday night, the Illini appear headed home for good.

“We didn’t quit competing, but (Wisconsin) hit one big shot after another,” head coach Bruce Weber said. He added that the run, as well as playing Wisconsin, was physically and emotionally draining to his team.

“They say (they weren’t tired), but I’m sure there’s some of that. I think more it’s Wisconsin just mentally breaks you down. They don’t give you anything, they keep their emotions. And then when your mind starts going all of a sudden your legs, you start worrying about it, you start doubting.”

Chester Frazier stared straight ahead while answering questions nobody wanted to answer. He thought about the seniors that were graduating – Hicks, Randle and center Shaun Pruitt – and said he wished they could have met a better end to their college careers.

He spoke of Hicks, though, with special attention.

“I didn’t want him to go out like this. It’s been a long year and all those guys fought so hard. Brian’s been hurt, everybody’s been down emotionally, but I feel sorry for those guys.”

“Chris (Hicks) won’t be forgotten, not in this locker room,” he added. “Everybody knows the role he had. Chris has been our energizer, he’s been our everything, man. He’s kept guys together, he’s been like the older brother of the team. Nobody in this locker room is going to forget about Chris Hicks.”

Pruitt calmly noted where the Illini made mistakes in the final game of the tournament.

“It does hurt but like I said you got to give a lot of credit to Wisconsin. It’s not like it was a heart-breaker, they just blew the game open. They’re a good team,” he said “Seeing that lead get away from us, all I could think was, ‘If we lose there’s no NCAA Tournament and this is mine, Brian’s and Chris’ last game.’ I just wanted it real bad.”

After developing a friendship with Hicks in his first season with the program, reserve guard Steve Holdren said he’ll miss his energy and passion.

“I feel terrible for him. He’s the most sincere guy on our team,” Holdren said. “He comes here every day and works his butt off for the team. It’s never about himself. He never puts himself before anybody else. I’m just happy he’s a friend of mine.

“Chris is one of those guys you just spout a relationship with without really trying. He’s fun to talk to, he’s fun to be around, he’s outgoing, I just love being around the guy.”

Later, as media started getting herded out of the locker room, Hicks, who has made his mark as a leader in practice and in the locker room, looked up – his eyes visibly red – and mustered up the energy to say this:

“Hopefully I’ve left a nice little legacy,” he said. “I won’t forget any of these guys. I keep telling them I’m not going anywhere too far, and I’ll still have everybody’s number. If they think they’re not going to hear from me they’re crazy.”